Saturday, December 05, 2009

And now for something completely different: Clare Lockhart cheers Obama's Afghan effort

Clare Lockhart, director of the Institute for State Effectiveness and an adviser to the UN and the Afghan Government from 2001 to 2005, provides an insider's view in The Times (UK) of what went wrong in Afghanistan:
In my years on the ground in Afghanistan, I witnessed the catastrophic under-resourcing of civilian rule. In 2001, there were 240,000 civil servants in place in Afghanistan, staffing schools, clinics, irrigation departments and ministries across Afghanistan’s provinces. The decision taken in 2002 was to ignore these public servants and the services they ran, by putting only $20 million in the Afghan Government’s first-year budget.

This barely paid fuel costs for a month, let alone salaries of $50 per month or the costs of schools and clinics. Instead, billions went into a parallel aid system and into supporting warlords to run militias that daily undermined the rule of law. The net result was to dismantle functioning Afghan institutions; teachers and nurses left their jobs in droves to become drivers, assistants and translators...

Change needs to come not only from the Afghans, but the way that international actors operate. The aid system requires a thorough revamping, so that it no longer undermines the very institutions it claims to support. This will require measures such as limiting the wages paid to Afghan staff working in the aid system to the same level they would earn in Afghan ministries.
According to Lockhart, the Afghan government had "a broad measure of trust" from the Afghan people from 2001-2005 but was starved of resources and capacity by the channeling of development aid to international NGOs. (A bit of context: Ashraf Ghani, Lockhart's colleague at the Institute for State Effectiveness and co-author with her of Fixing Failed States, was Afghan finance minister from 2002-2004.)  She offers a measure of enthusiasm and hope that jars with the rueful "mission-all-but-impossible" attitude of most informed  insiders making themselves heard in English-language media.

The program Lockhart offers seems in its way as multi-pronged, nuanced, and maximalist as that of Stanley McChrystal (to whom she offers a vote of confidence). Though she claims that Afghanistan "can and should pay for its own nation-building" by developing natural resources and what's left of existing industries, she seems to envision a smart provisioning of government that would enable this development. That does not sound easy (and nor does the long-term investment in education that's her other main emphasis). What she brings to the table is extensive experience working with Afghan civil servants, and a bracing faith in their good will and capacity.  In effect, she suggests that this ground-level government infrastructure suffered from a kind of gangrene as aid flowed to the international agencies.

Lockhart's take on what Obama and McChrystal are up to is a bit different too:
President Obama has got it right. After taking his time to wrestle with the enormous challenge of defining the US national interest in Afghanistan and its region, he has provided a credible vision of ending the war, stabilising the country and handing over responsibility to Afghan self-rule. His move away from fighting, endorsing General Stanley McChrystal’s analysis, will protect the population and provide a security bridge while Afghan forces are trained.
Obama and McChrystal have made a "move away from fighting"? That's one way of looking at it, I guess, given McChrystal's extreme emphasis on protecting the populace, and Obama's on getting out quickly.  But it's a bit one-sided. Cf. this Steve Coll exchange (noted here on Wednesday):
Tired Soldier: Won't increasing numbers of U.S. troops lead to more contact (combat) and further alienate the civilian population? In my experience in Afghanistan, more contact has always meant more fire support gets used, which means more civilians get killed, which turns the local tribal elders against us and multiplies our enemies. General McChrystal hasn't been able to break that cycle yet. Any sense that the new strategy avoids this trap?
Steve Coll: It's a good question. The McChrystal report suggests that he expects more contact and more violence initially, but then hopes to "hold" and "build" in a more passive manner in the major population centers, once they are cleared of Taliban cells and networks. The level of violence in the big cities even now is not very intense, but that may change as international forces try to make themselves more felt in places like Kandahar. Apparently the new strategy will also recommit to rural Helmand province, a poppy-growing region. I'm not sure whether the Taliban will see it as in their interest to go all out there, given that they have other targets that will be less heavily defended, but in the short run, I would expect violence in Helmand to rise for the reasons you suggest. Already, however, the international community has some tribal and other allies in Helmand to work with on their side of the conflict.
For the record, Lockhart's piece is flayed in the Comments section. That may say more about Times readership than about  Lockhart. But it does bespeak the depth of  UK war weariness and skepticism about means and ends in Afghanistan -- at least among the Times' affluent business-oriented readership.

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